She looked at me as if she might collapse and weep.
“There was a fire in the camp site and they lost three huts. An old lady threw out some embers, the wind caught them and set alight to the bush all around. The people were so upset for us.”
Naturally the locals were distraught for this charming (if, unintentionally, patronising) American visitor that she had to witness the devastation that had befallen “her” camp, but they were also showing a stalwart stoicism in being upset for the khaki-clad, camera-toter and not for themselves. It was indeed a big fire. As it happened, whole villages had been reduced to embers. Crops gone. Animals, probably, too. But the first concern was for the visitor’s spoilt holiday.
The destroyed camp was near Thohoyandou, but we meet such folk everywhere and especially in rural parts. Decent, helpful, mildly eccentric South Africans with a polite welcome, exemplary manners and an unending enthusiasm for our land. Every tourist that comes here is blown away by the warmth of everyone they meet. We must remember that.
Hello, how are you? The standard South African greeting. The answer: We are fine. Always. Can’t complain. Sikhona. Ke teng. Goed dankie, self?
Even if we did have a problem, why would we tell a visitor. It doesn’t help to ruin someone else’s day, just because yours isn’t going so well.
We know disaster and we put it into perspective. Fire, flood, pestilence, crime, drought and cold are all part of life and we don’t use them to seek sympathy. In the face of chaos – and let’s face it, we’ve had a bit of that – we pull together with our unique ubuntu-based community spirit. We don’t make our problems other people’s problems.
“Middag, Oom.” A young fair-haired child walks towards me across the parking at Kruger’s Mopani Rest Camp. I reply, asking him how he is. He says he is fine, thank you, Oom.
He greets the man behind me, who has a longer chat with the boy and instructs him to tell his parents what good manners he has.
He agrees, with a modest grin.
The Kruger National Park has a particular capacity to bring out the best in us. Recently, near Pretoriuskop, we came across nine sable and we were so chuffed that we made it our business to wave down passing tourists with a “Do you know what that is?”
“I sink it is an antelope …”
“That is an antelope alright. Even better, that is a sable antelope. One of the rarest creatures in the country. You will never see another one.” I wanted them to be as excited as I was – and they did their best. Moments later, we saw six hartebeest. I almost had to be tied down to prevent me going back to find the Germans, tell them and then invite them home for a braai with pap and a 3-bean salad.
Last week, I met an “ex-South-African”, now working the till in a hardware shop in southern England. Although both English-speaking, we spoke Afrikaans because he missed it and using it apparently helped with his homesickness. I told him that I lived ten minutes from the Kruger National Park. He looked a bit upset and then, with a wry smile, told me that he still managed to come “home” every couple of years.
Have you tried ordering a coffee in a café in Europe recently? Often, you are met with a surly get-it-yourself scowl. Order a coffee in South Africa and, once you have fought your way through the tangle of how-are-you-fine-and-yous, and although admittedly you might get a cup of tea, it will arrive with a huge smile.
That’s why most overseas visitors, at the end of their holidays, say “I am going home, sadly.”
The returning South African says “I am going home, and I can’t wait!”